Anyone who has spent some time in the Netherlands realizes that the Dutch, like their northern hemisphere neighbors, have a complicated relationship with the sun. Or more accurately, the lack of consistent sunlight all throughout the year can be downright depressive. The Dutch are avid sun worshippers, taking any chance they can get to sit on a terrace and turn their faces towards the sun, even on days with cool, crisp, bone-cold temperatures. Deep into the winter months, the Dutch start praying under their foggy breaths and complaining out loud in vain for the sun to reappear.
Like many around me, autumn and winter in the Netherlands dampen my spirit, making me more socially reclusive, giving me difficulty concentrating, and making me feel anxious and overly sensitive. I indulge more, stuffing myself with Tony’s chocolates while baking apple pies and stewing poached pears. I also have an insatiable craving for empty calories in the form of bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes, piling on generous portions on my plate. This mild form of malaise is referred to as the winter blues. A more severe form of it is referred to by clinical psychologists as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but a spectrum of emotional and behavioral issues linked to the seasons. And for a minority of people who suffer from SAD, their reality in the deep winter months can be debilitating.
It’s important to acknowledge that winter blues and SAD are real and not some fabricated #firstworldproblem. The shortening days and longer nights make it difficult for some to synchronize their circadian clock to the outside world.
The positive news is that places who experience the highest levels of winter blues and SAD are considered, time and time again, to be the happiest countries to live in. After ten years of experiencing this (one of the side-effects of moving to the Low Countries), I’m empowered to slay the winter blues. Here are some coping tips, inspired of course by the pragmatic Dutch approach:
Recognize the problem
There is a lot of truth to the old age adage that “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one.” Symptoms of SAD include hopelessness, increased appetite with weight gain, increased sleep, less energy and ability to concentrate, loss of interest in work or other activities, sluggish movements, social withdrawal, unhappiness, and irritability. If you find yourself with some of these feelings, consider going to your general practitioner.
Keep It Gezellig
Gezelligheid – the untranslatable Dutch word that embodies feelings of coziness, warmth, belonging and love- helps with coping with the winter blues and SAD. The emphasis is on human connection. Think of candles, a warm cup of chocolate milk with whipped cream and being surrounded by your nearest and dearest. Call, text, or message a good friend. Try your best not to isolate yourself.
Invest in a Light Therapy Lamp
For some people, a light therapy lamp can do wonders to help lessen the symptoms of winter blues and SAD. According to Wirecutter, “Far from being a fringe or ‘alternative’ purported remedy for SAD, light therapy has been clinically shown to work to alleviate symptoms in over 60 studies in serious scientific publications” by helping our bodies stay on a more natural sleep-wake cycle.
Get Some Exercise
As Elle from Legally Blonde said, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” I’m embarrassed to admit that old school Jillian Michael videos do the trick for me. Twenty minutes of doing some exercise in the comfort of my living room without bracing the cold always make me happier.
A healthy nutritious diet can definitely help and actually has a strong influence on your overall mood. Consider eating low-impact carbs like unprocessed oats and legumes and high-protein foods to keep the sweet tooth cravings at bay. You really will start feeling better, I promise.
Go On a Sun Vacation
This idea was presented to me by my Dutch general practitioner when I was struggling with unexplainable feelings of sadness and irritability my first winter in the Netherlands. She prescribed me a take a two-week trip back home to San Francisco. Other families go on a ski holiday. Winter sun holidays are such a popular alternative among the Dutch that there’s an entire industry dedicated to offering affordable (read =cheap) getaway options.
Find Something to Be Passionate About
Full disclosure: The first time I did not experience winter blues while living in the Netherlands was when I was busy co-writing The Happiest Kids in the World. I was way too entrenched in the writing and editing process. Keeping yourself busy with a project that you are genuinely passionate about can really help pass the time and distract you from the reality of living in what seems like perpetual darkness. This autumn and winter, I have my heart set on improving my photography skills.
p.s. Come join us on our Finding Dutchland page. We promise we’ll provide enough distractions to help you procrastinate.
Photos courtesy of Niels Weiss, Ehud Neuhaus, and Mitchel Lensink.